Radical Urban Theory

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A swelteringly hot day in Los Angeles, 1962. A pretty girl ("she reminded him of well water and farm breakfasts") is absentmindedly taking off her clothes at a bus stop. The corner newsboy gawks delightedly, but most passersby simply glance nervously and continue on their way. A nerdish mathematician named Potiphar Breen finally comes to the rescue. As he wraps his coat around her, he explains that she is the victim of a strange epidemic of involuntary nudism known as the "Gypsy Rose Syndrome."

It is a small omen of the approaching chaos. Breen has discovered that Los Angeles is the global epicenter of a sinister convergence of pathological trends. All the warning lights have started to flash in unison: the mercury soars, skies darken, dams creak, faults strain, and politicians wave rockets. Then despite an epic drought, suburbanites are gripped by the death wish to water their lawns.

"The Metropolitan Water district commissioners tried to stop it. It fell between the stools of the police powers of fifty 'sovereign cities.' The taps remained open, trickling away the lifeblood of the desert paradise."

The drought is quickly followed by flood, earthquake, nuclear war, plague, a Communist invasion, and the reemergence of Atlantis. Breen hides out in the San Gabriel Mountains with his new girlfriend, amusing himself by shooting the odd Soviet paratrooper or two. Then, just when the worst seems to be over, he notices an unusually large sunspot. The sun has began to die. . . .

So ends Robert Heinlein's tongue-in-cheek story, The Year of the Jackpot (1952). In crowning Los Angeles as doom capital of the universe, Heinlein cannily anticipated the cornucopia of disaster to follow. The destruction of Los Angeles has been the central theme or dominating image in more than a hundred and fifty novels, short stories, and films. Moreover, since 1960, the city and its suburbs have been punctually destroyed an average of three times per year, with the rate dramatically accelerating in the 1990s.

Since last summer, for example, Los Angeles has been parboiled by aliens ( Independence Day ), reduced to barbarism by mega-earthquakes ( Escape from L.A. and The Crow: City of Angels ), and transformed into a postmodern Pompeii ( Volcano )¤all to the sheer delight of millions of viewers. No other city seems to excite such dark rapture. The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or be swallowed up by the San Andreas.

Some of these conflagrations are just doom-laden slapstick; others are obvious expressions of racial hysteria. For true connoisseurs I offer the following guide to some of the stranger L.A. apocalypses.

The Valor of Ignorance by Homer Lea (1909)
L.A. disaster fiction is inaugurated, not with an earthquake or flood, but with this lurid account of the Japanese invasion of Southern California. Lea, a Chinese-speaking adventurer who commanded a ragtag army during the Boxer Rebellion, was obsessed with the Japanese threat to the West Coast. Los Angeles, he argued, was utterly defenseless. "One regiment can occupy the city with impunity."

In his fictional account, the Japanese armada, having already conquered Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, feints at the "worthless" fortifications in San Pedro, then lands unopposed in Santa Monica. Los Angeles falls the next day, precipitating a chain of events which leads to Japanese world supremacy and a military monarchy in the Eastern United States.

Invasion! by Whitman Chambers (1943)
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, when invasion hysteria was at its height, Lea's book was reissued (with a new introduction by Clare Booth Luce), stimulating a hack writer named Whitman Chambers to fill in the grisly details. In his version, a Japanese airborne landing in Santa Monica is accompanied by incendiary and poison-gas bombardment that reduces much of L.A. to stucco rubble.

A small group of civilian and military survivors, hiding in a Westlake storm drain, are transformed into guerrilla warriors by Happy McGonigle, a middle-aged "newsboy" who delights in killing the Japanese (who are portrayed as apes or insects) with his bare hands.

McGonigle's band find their ultimate revenge at the battle-scarred corner of Alvarado Street and Glendale Boulevard, where they surprise a platoon of Japanese soldiers eating oranges (a particularly obscene image to Chambers). Happy delegates the slaughter of the prisoners to a Jewish GI named Abe, while the rest of the band debate the tactics of total race war against the invaders.

The Secret Power: A Romance of the Time by Marie Correlli (1921)
Long before the Manhattan Project, romance novelist Marie Correlli used an atomic explosion (first conceived by H.G. Wells in 1912) to decimate Los Angeles. In her incomparably strange story, Roger Seaton, the world's foremost physicist and a self-proclaimed Nietzschean superman, lives reclusively in a cabin in the San Gabriel Mountains, tinkering with his homemade atomic bomb and nursing a broken heart.

He has been jilted by Morgana Royal, "a modern Cleopatra," who, aside from being the richest woman in the world, is also the "second most brilliant theorist of the future development of radioactivity." When not engaged in telepathic conversations with the inhabitants of a mysterious desert city, she tools around the world in her great airship, the White Eagle, which is powered by "throbbing atomic disks."

On one of these jaunts, she visits Roger and meets Manella Sorisa, a dark-eyed Spanish beauty who is smoldering with unrequited passion for Roger. The women immediately develop a sisterly solidarity. A few weeks later, Manella surprises Roger in his cave laboratory while he is playing with atomic toys. He drops the bomb.

The resulting explosion sets off a gigantic earthquake that devastates the Los Angeles area, killing most of its inhabitants. Morgana, however, flies over Sicily (where she cohabits a castle with a flirtatious priest) and retrieves the bodies of Roger and Manella. Radioactivity restores Manella to miraculous health, but Roger is left as a helpless infant, confined to bed and incessantly muttering, "I am the master of the world."

Both Manella and Morgana are delighted with the scope this situation affords their maternal instincts. Manella marries Roger, while Morgana flies off to her Brazen City in the Sahara. In her last telepathic message, she declares: "'Masters of the World' are poor creatures at best . . . but the secret makers of the New Race are the gods of the Future!"

The Day They H-bombed Los Angeles by Robert Moore Williams (1961), and Miracle Mile , a film by Steve De Jarnatt (1988)
Atomic bombs fell like rain on Los Angeles during the Cold War decades. Of the thirty-six novels and films that depict the nuclear destruction of the land of Sunshine, two stand out for their sheer eccentricity.

In Robert Moore Williams's 1961 novel, stunned survivors emerge from a San Pedro bombshelter to discover that it is not the "dirty commies," but the Pentagon that has nuked Los Angeles. The reason: to destroy the giant mutant protein molecules (the result of American H-bomb testing in the South Pacific) that are turning the population into flesh-eating zombies. The patriotic survivalists, led by an FBI agent and a tough ex-Marine, exterminate vast multitudes of the undead in heroic hand-to-hand combat.

The novel's most poignant scene occurs when a "bullet knocks a molecule out of control" (sic) and allows a dying zombie to briefly regain his humanity. "This is the human part of me talking," Eric Bloor's whisper came again. "This is the kid you once knew; the kid who was scared of a pet poodle, the kid who had to whistle to find the courage to pass a cemetery at night. . . ."

Miracle Mile finds both black humor and true love at ground zero. Until the ICBMs come arching over the Hollywood sign, it is not clear whether nuclear war is really imminent or Los Angeles has simply been unhinged by rumor. The city is so close to its ultimate boiling point that the nukes are almost superfluous. Yet, even on the last shopping day in the history of the world, romance manages to brighten the face of extinction. As the doomed lovers, Harry and Julie, slowly sink into the La Brea Tarpits, they mind consolation in the prospect that "we will metamorphosize together."

The End of the Age by Reverend Pat Robertson (1995)
In Rev. Robertson's novel, God more or less flushes Los Angeles down the toilet with a mile-high tsunami generated by the impact of a "giant meteor." (He apparently doesn't know the difference between a meteor and asteroid.) The sole survivors of this holocaust are a family of Chicano fundamentalists hiding in trenches on the top of Mt. Wilson. This opening scenario is directly purloined from the 1977 potboiler, Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but Robertson adds a few Old Testament touches of his own, like blazing crude oil on the top of the tsunami. (Niven and Pournelle, on the other hand, include more local color, like the stoked surfer who rides the doomsday wave inland until he¤splat!¤collides with the upper floor of a Westside skyscraper.)

In the end, divine genocide against Southern California is simply a neat way to clear the decks for the real action: righteous Texas Protestants battling Satan (now President of the United States) and his minions (a billion Indians, Pakistanis, Persians, and Arabs) in a wide-screen version of the Book of Revelations.

Ultimately, one of Robertson's square-jawed heroes, former Defense Secretary Al Augustus, gets to dis the Devil in person: "Listen to me, you snake-headed freak," he shouted. . . . "You've been a loser from the very beginning. Jesus Christ is the winner, and I'm on His team. And just for the record, I have eighteen Poseidon missiles aimed at the heart of Babylon at this minute. . . ."

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (London: Routledge, Chapman & Hill, 1990).

Originally published online in Grand Street #59 , a production of Vogager Co.
Copyright © Voyager Co. 1995


Radical Urban Theory